Now that Black Friday (which apparently is a “thing” now in Barcelona, sadly) and Cyber Monday are over, we can settle into a more sane shopping routine. After so many years as a student abroad, I’ve put together a list of things that a college abroad student, study abroad student, expat, or avid international traveler would love to have. Whether they’ve yet to board a plane or they’ve been abroad for years, something on this list will make them very happy campers. Before we get to my list, however, a few rules to keep in mind when buying for someone who will be taking off on an international flight after the holidays.
1. If possible, gifts for college abroad students or travelers should be light-weight and durable. Gifts will need to be able to survive several long flights in the luggage-hold.
2. Gift cards bought in the US can’t be used overseas, even at stores that exist abroad. For example, a Starbucks card bought in the US won’t work at a Starbucks in Spain. Therefore, gift cards aren’t generally a good idea, but see the exceptions to this below.
3. While giving fun and frivolous gifts can be entertaining for all involved, people moving abroad will probably try to downsize their possessions, so whatever you buy for them should be something that serves an important and specific purpose. Otherwise, you might just see it on Craigslist on December 26th.
4. Anything that needs to be plugged in should have the ability to operate on a different voltage. Most modern electronics can automatically switch voltages, but check to make sure before buying anything. Appliances like hairdryers probably can’t handle a different voltage–better to give your college abroad student the money to buy appliances locally.
6. Don’t buy anything that comes with regional codes such as certain cell phones (more precisely “locked” phones) and DVDs. These products are meant to be sold and used in the US and simply won’t work abroad (American DVDs will work in an American laptop, but personally I think it is easier to bring digital movies rather than DVDs).
7. Try to keep in mind the regulations regarding airport security and customs in the destination country.
8. Especially for international students, remember that everything that goes with them abroad must at some point come home. Keep everything small and simple if possible.
8. Although the surprise is part of the holiday fun, some things that are essential for expats and travelers should be picked out to correspond to the style and fit of the specific traveler. Take your college abroad student to the store and allow him/her to pick out the item rather than trying to use your own best judgment. Your student will appreciate it. You can still wrap up the gifts and put them under the tree.
And that leads us to….
Practical items for those that haven’t moved abroad yet or first-timers
1. Backpacks. I’m not talking about your average back-to-school backpack (see below). I’m talking about tough, durable, multi-compartment, 40-80 liter backpacks for traveling like this one. Even if your college abroad student won’t be doing any sort of heavy traveling, having a durable backpack is a must for moving abroad. Unless your student is the absolute minimalist, s/he will probably need more than one checked bag to move abroad for a year or longer, and two big suitcases on wheels are impossible to manage. Plus a backpack frees up your hands. This is one of those gifts that the student will want to pick out themselves, depending on their travel plans, size preferences, and gender. Check out these guides for backpacks here and here.
2. Everyday backpack or briefcase. Many schools abroad don’t have US-style residential campuses where all academic buildings are clustered together within a walkable distance. Therefore, you may be doing a lot of traveling between home and different buildings scattered throughout town for class. You’ll want a smaller, everyday bag for class that can fit some books, a laptop and everything else you’ll need for class. This bag can double as a good carry-on. Again, this sort of thing should probably be picked out by the student, so go to the store with him/her or get a gift card. Last year, I bought this one, and I absolutely love it (although it might be a bit big for some).
3. Luggage. The college abroad student will also want one or two suitcases/dufflebags on wheels, and definitely a large one for the initial move. The key to a good suitcase for moves abroad is the weight. You only get 50 pounds of checked luggage…if 10 of that is all suitcase you’re not doing yourself any favors. If you plan on using older bags, make sure that the wheels are in good condition and aren’t likely to fall off during the trip, that the zippers still work properly, the handle still extends and collapses smoothly, and that there aren’t any rips or tears in the fabric.
4. Spacebags. These are large plastic bags that use a vacuum seal to that you can pack 5-6 shirts or sweaters in the space of one. This helps transport a lot of clothes abroad, but of course, it adds serious weight to your bag. I still find them useful, though.
5. Passport pocket and/or money belt. Certain countries require expats to carry their passports on them at all times. If this is the case, you’ll want a wallet that is big enough to safely fit a passport. I also recommend a wallet that has two different pockets for bills and coins so that you can keep different currencies separate. Other options are passport pockets that you can wear around your neck for easy and safe access. For those planning to travel a lot, a money belt allows you to keep emergency cash in a safe and inaccessible location.
6. Books. I actually don’t think college abroad students should bring very many books with them, mostly because they are heavy. But there are a few books to consider making space for: a recipe book tailored to students on a budget (see my previous post on cooking abroad), a guidebook for the city or country where the student will be living, a phrasebook or a dictionary to help with learning the language…or…a general guide for moving and living abroad like my book, College Abroad! (You really should have anticipated the shameless plug). An alternative would be a tablet or an e-reader so that the student can take a ton of books with her.
7. This brings me to my next suggestion: gift certificates that can be redeemed abroad. Digital content such as music, movies, TV shows, e-books, etc. can be redeemed through iTunes, Google Play and Amazon even if you’re living abroad (the student will need an American account with these companies, which usually requires an American credit card and/or bank account). This is the best and most legal way to get American entertainment abroad. Streaming services like Netflix and HuluPlus won’t really work without a workaround.
8. Gift certificates for flights or frequent flier miles. This is somewhat difficult unless your student is fairly certain which airline s/he will fly, and before buying you should make sure that the airline you choose actually flies between your student’s origin and destination. For that reason, it is better to find which travel rewards program your student participates in (and ideally it should be a program that allows booking on any major airline such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi Thankyou Network) and purchase points or miles to help them purchase flights.
9. Digital Camera. Again, cameras are a very personal decision for every expat/traveler, so you might want to take the student to the store with you. Camera accessories like cases, extra batteries, or extra memory cards are also fantastic.
10. Journal. If your student is still the type that likes to put pen to paper rather than finger to keyboard, a travel journal is a great way for them to record their thoughts, first impressions, and even collect ticket stubs. Or get creative and make a unique DIY travel journal.
11. Luggage tags, unique luggage identifiers, luggage locks. Luggage tags should come with several tags so that the student can change the contact information frequently. Locks should be TSA-compliant or they’ll be broken. I prefer ones with a number combination rather than keys because I lose the keys too easily. Luggage identifiers are brightly colored ribbons, straps, or Velcro covers that go over luggage handles to make your luggage stand out in the sea of black suitcases.
12. Plug adapters. This takes some research to know the precise shape of the outlets in your student’s destination country. Essentially these are little devices that fit over the plugs of your electronics so that your device (laptop, cell phone, etc) will fit into a foreign outlet. If the student will be doing a lot of travel, consider a universal adapter. Stores like RadioShack and BestBuy often carry adapters for a reasonable price.
13. In-flight or culture-shock mitigation care package. This may be the cheapest but most appreciated gift for a first time expat/international student/traveler. Such a package might include small packaged snacks such as granola bars or chips, an empty water bottle (remember no liquids through security!), a magazine, headphones, a neck pillow, eye mask, airline vouchers to get a snack on-board, disposable slippers to wear in-flight, travel toothbrush and toothpaste, hand sanitizer or wipes for the face, mild painkillers or motion sickness pills, chewing gum or these fantastic earplugs that ease ear pain during landing (a life-saver for me), travel-sized bars of soap and other cosmetics like lotion and shower gel, small jar of peanut butter or other hard-to-find American food items, a Skype voucher to call home, a local SIM card so they can use their cell phone overseas (this deserves a blog post of its own, but it requires an unlocked GSM-capable cell phone), gift certificates for local train or flight travel once in-country, a small blanket, something to soothe an upset stomach, band-aids, tampons (until the student can figure out where to buy them locally), a tiny memento from home, lip balm, batteries, pens or a small notebook. Of course, don’t give them ALL of these items! It would be too much to carry, but this is a pretty good list. I remember how nervous and bewildered I was when I first moved abroad, and I wish I had had even a quarter of these items with me.
14. Cash. I always ask for cash for Christmas. It doesn’t take up space in my luggage and I can use it whenever and wherever I want. You can give your traveling student foreign currency if you can get it, but dollars works just as well. Deposit the money before s/he leaves, or use a service like Amazon payments to send cash between you and your student (this also works if the student can’t come home for the holidays). They can use a debit card at an ATM abroad to get access to the money.
More suggestions are welcome in the comments!
I have not been paid or given samples of any of the products I recommend. Some of the products mentioned in this post I own but all were purchased by me or given as gifts by family, NOT the retailer or the manufacturer.